Wednesday, August 28, 2013

The Rut

After I emerge from the woods I go to my car and sleep for a few hours but wake up early just before sunrise and feel too restless to go back to sleep. The dim light in the forest last night revealed only enough to intrigue me and I want to go back to see it in the daylight. The clouds are gone now and as soon as the sun comes over the horizon the woods are filled with warm green and yellow light and I head in. 
I find slugs crawling across the trail; yellow and black, as big around as a thumb and 5 inches long. I also find a red, scaly snail climbing over fallen leaves and rocks. I sit and watch the snail near the grove of moss draped maples while he inches his way towards his quarry for the day. As I’m sitting on the trail I hear a twig snap in a tangle of saplings under a cedar in the distance. I wonder if it could be another hiker but I thought I was the first one on the trail. I stand on the edge of the trail and wait for another sound. When it comes it is a much louder snap like a thick branch of a tree being broken. I see the leaves of a little maple whip back and forth a bit and something protruding above the leaves about the height of my head. I didn’t read the sign on the way onto the trail so I’m not sure what animals are common to this forest but it seems too tall to be a black bear.
I change the lens on my camera to a long telephoto and stand completely still waiting, hoping that whatever is behind those trees will reveal itself. I wait for 20 minutes as leaves shake and twigs break and finally I see the brown back of a bull elk pass by a hole in the trees. I just get a fleeting glance of his light toned antlers and an eye as he peeks through at me. As he moves on he’s followed by three smaller cow elk and finally an extremely large matriarch. He waits for them to pass and herds them together as they move slowly through, eating leaves off the low saplings.
The bull kneels down and rests in some ferns and I circle around on the trail to try to get another view. As I’m coming around I hear more noise in the trees to my right. Above the leaves I see tall dark antlers and another massive bull steps through the woods towards the grazing group.
I spot the new bull before the smaller bull does and I walk silently back around and wait anxiously for him to come through the branches into their group. The light antlered bull suddenly stands up as the large bull calmly presses through the leaves into the clearing. The smaller bull stays still, close to the cows as the challenger steps up to him.
They seem to bow to one another before locking their antlers to spar. They maneuver to get the upper hand but they seem to be very casual about the confrontation and both stop to stare at me at one point. Then the larger bull hooks the end of his antler around the base of the smaller bull’s one last time and just pushes him out of the clearing back into the trees and it is over; the small bull slowly retreats back into the forest abandoning his mates.

The cows stop grazing and stand seeming to not know what to do. The large bull tries to approach the matriarch and she takes off running. He pursues her and their thunderous footfalls shake my chest as they leap over a fallen log and run across the trail 30 feet from me and into the thick growth on the other side, crashing through the branches.

I think that I’ve seen the last of them and I go back to where my snail was toiling but he’s no longer there. I start to walk up to a cathedral of mossy hemlock when I hear that high pitched sound again and then that low guttural call the seems to shake the trees it is so close. I run back to where I found the elk just in time to see the matriarch charge through the trees with the smaller does crowded around her and the large bull right behind. They cross the trail again and the bull brings down a sapling that gets caught in his antlers as he gives chase. The smaller bull still lingers in the distance managing to retain one small cow as the larger bull corrals the rest of the herd for himself.

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